As an arboricultural consultant, this article is written through the lens of a professional working in this context (i.e. my professional opinion). That being said, there is a clear cross-over to the public sector aspect of arboriculture (i.e. the tree officer). This article is also only a cursory glance at the issue so please follow-up with your own research. It goes without saying that the recommendations of BS 5837:2012 apply in the context of development and therefore this document is not directly referenced below.
Legal policy context
The UK government’s position on planning and development in England is kept ‘relevant’ through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was most recently revised in 2018 and updated to a minor extent in February 2019. The purpose of the NPPF is to guide Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to ensure that the manner in which they manage development within their jurisdiction is sustainable. Sustainability – in the NPPF – is defined broadly as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and is broken down in to three key parts: economic, social, and environmental (usually where trees come in) sustainability. To effectively pursue this trifold ‘archetype’, the NPPF specifies that “planning policies and decisions should play an active role in guiding development towards sustainable solutions, but in doing so should take local circumstances into account, to reflect the character, needs and opportunities of each area“.
In order for LPAs to achieve this, they must therefore produce a Local Development Plan (LDP) as per the legal requirement of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (sometimes as both a Core Strategy document and a Development Management Policies document – usually coming into action at the same time but not always and with the former covering strategic policies and the latter non-strategic policies), which provides planning policies at the local level and guides local development (the NPPF specifies that planning and development “should be genuinely plan-led“). The Localism Act 2011 facilitated in the descension of local policy also to the neighbourhood level with Neighbourhood Plans (NPs) (see also this link and this link), which is relevant but needn’t be discussed in detail right now (NPs are considered non-strategic and relevant in the planning context but are not yet widespread across England – use them where they exist). The NPPF specifies that the LDP must be supported by Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs – defined in the NPPF as documents that “add further detail to the policies in the development plan“), where they are required and appropriate, in addition to Conservation Area (CA) appraisals and management documents. SPDs in particular must not conflict with the current LDP else they are generally redundant, as per the The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012.
Within all of these documents, there will almost always be a reference to trees. This may come as a specific tree policy or as a green infrastructure policy (or anything in between). Sometimes, policies may relate only partly to trees but still be relevant – for example, a policy that specifies that landscape character should be properly assessed and protected within any proposed development.
Arboriculture and planning policy
With all of the above policy context, it is important to understand what the role of the arboriculturist is in the context of development management leading up to the point where the proposed development can legally begin to be built (following the discharge of pre-commencement conditions).
On the private side, the role in this process is as a consultant who works with the design team from RIBA Stages 1 through 5 (sometimes from 0) and usually – but depending on the scale of the project – with the project manager, planning consultant, architect, landscape architect, structural engineer, M&E engineer, and main contractor (in preparing for tender). The arboriculturist must, during this process, be aware from the offset of the relevant planning policy and documents from the LDP and any other related documents (e.g. SPDs, CA appraisal, and NP in some cases). The arboriculturist must therefore undertake a desktop study, to identify all relevant policies and documents and extract important details. For example, if we were looking at a proposed development in the Mill Hill area of the London Borough of Barnet, it would be necessary to consider the following documents at the local level:
- The Core Strategy and Development Management Policies documents;
- The Green Infrastructure SPD;
- The Mill Hill CA Character Appraisal Statement document.
Within these documents, the arboriculturist will need to identify those relevant planning policies and details that will have an impact upon the scope and eventual nature proposed development. Focussing on the LDP documents only, one will be able to see that strategic policies CS5 and CS7 are relevant in this case, in addition to the non-strategic policies DM01 and DM06 (the latter because Mill Hill is a CA). Specific details from the SPD and CA appraisal can then be selected from the texts. It is the role of the arboriculturist to ensure that they operate to these policies and details and advise the design team of this – particularly, the project manager and planning consultant, who will drive the proposed development designs forward in this respect and keep the project ‘on course’ and the trees suitably considered and accounted for (i.e. no clearfell operations where there are many good trees). Ultimately, the arboriculturist should include within their supporting statement (an Arboricultural Impact Assessment or ‘AIA‘) accompanying a planning application these policies and details and demonstrate how the proposed development complies with them.
On the public side of the industry, the tree officer at the LPA will assess the proposed development in line with the relevant planning policy from the LDP and details from the relevant SPDs etc. The tree officer will usually operate within the Development Management department of the LPA and report directly to the case officer handling the planning application – the tree officer is, in this capacity, a consultee. Specifically, the tree officer will review the proposed development plans provided by the architect and review any relevant supporting documents (such as a Design & Access Statement but most importantly the AIA – where this is lacking and considered relevant, the tree officer will almost always request one through the case officer). It is therefore important that the AIA discusses planning policy and other relevant planning details, because this demonstrates to the tree officer that the proposed development complies with policy and that it should be supported and granted consent.
Ideally, the arboriculturist on the private side and public side will directly liaise, where there is reason to do so. For example, the consultant may be contacted by the tree officer to discuss a specific tree and the juxtaposition of a building elevation, or to discuss hard surfacing proposed within close proximity to a tree.
Why planning policy is important
It has been previously established that adhering to planning policy is important. However, it is important to understand why, in context to the above discussion.
Principally, planning policy is the measure through which the NPPF specifies that proposed developments should be managed and determined by the LPA. For example, if the proposed development accords with all relevant planning policies, the NPPF specifies that the proposed development should almost always be granted consent. By extension, it is important for any proposed development to accord with relevant planning policy prior to the proposed development going in as a planning application, in order to ensure the highest probability of a Decision Notice being issued granting consent (and subject to conditions or reserved matters for full and outline applications respectively – it is more complicated for hybrid applications). Planning policy details still apply following consent where conditions etc apply and this is notably the case with complex developments including basement construction and large estate developments.
It is also important for the arboriculturist to utilise planning policy to its fullest extent, because this assists in elevating the industry towards a higher professional end. Specifically, by integrating planning policy and arboriculture the arboriculturist becomes a very valuable member of the design team and not simply limited to the fringes (or at least reduce the likelihood of being perceived that way). After all, arboriculture is a ‘young’ industry and there is clear scope to progress the industry so that it is valued in a similar fashion to architecture – undoubtedly, trees are key components of all ecosystems including urban and there is much crossover between arboriculture and landscape architecture.
As a cautionary note, it is not always the case that all planning policies can be satisfied. For example, a policy specifying that all trees of good quality will be retained and protected during any development operations may be outweighed by an area formally designated for significant development within the LDP (such as for a large multi-storey car park, to support economic growth within a town centre). In such a case, it is important that both the private and public arboricultural professional understand the constraints posed by the hierarchical nature of some planning policy (i.e. strategic may outweigh non-strategic), which might involve discussions with the planning consultant and case officer respectively. In ambiguous cases, it is most critical that the (private) consultant arboriculturist advises the client of the need to strongly consider a pre-application discussion with the LPA to avoid unnecessary future conflict at the planning stage – indeed, the NPPF explicitly suggests this in paragraph 41: “the more issues that can be resolved at pre-application stage, including the need to deliver improvements in infrastructure and affordable housing, the greater the benefits [and] for their role in the planning system to be effective and positive, statutory planning consultees will need to take the same early, pro-active approach, and provide advice in a timely manner throughout the development process“.
To effectively summarise the above, it can be stated that:
- the consultant arboriculturist within the design team must fully consider appropriate local planning policy and feed this policy detail to the design team and cover it within the AIA;
- the tree officer at the LPA must assess any proposed development in line with relevant planning policy and details arising from SPDs etc;
- by emphasising the importance of planning policy both on the private and public side as regards arboriculture (through referring to it throughout the development process leading up to a Decision Notice), the industry will be considered in a more valuable light by all other professionals at that time and hopefully in the future; and
- therefore the arboricultural professional will be considered on a similar level to the architect and landscape architect (more broadly the entire range of professions involved in planning and development), which means trees are more likely to be protected during development operations and by extension feature more readily in developed areas and for longer periods.